Midnight on the Mountain

I knew we were in trouble when they turned on the light bar. The pickup was at first a minor annoyance as it sat across the small gravel parking lot from our campsite, its headlamps aimed ominously at our tents. It was near midnight and we were tired after a day of backpacking on the Foothills Trail along the South Carolina/North Carolina line. They were Friday night hooligans, I thought to myself, nothing more. But when the million-lumen light bar lit us up, annoyance evaporated into fear.

It was a horrible thing, the truck. Idling like a ravenous beast. It was a full size American-made truck of an indeterminate make in the inky darkness. If Stephen King were a Southerner, this truck would have been his Christine, except it would have been named “Bocephus” or “Delmar”. It had massive, knobby tires and one of those after-market muffler set-ups that made the engine roar at an ear-piercing decibel. A tattered Confederate battle flag hung defiantly from an antenna on the right fender. It was a nightmare. A redneck’s wet dream.

We sat in our tents paralyzed. What the fuck were these guys up to? Melissa tried in vain to get a signal on her cell. Chase, our 13-year-old nephew was in his own tent a dozen feet away. Ours were the only two tents around.

The derelicts had come down the mountain on a jeep road just a few minutes earlier, and seeing our tents, decided to have a little fun at our expense. They spun out, doing figure eights and slinging gravel, the howling engine at full octave. I was on this mountain with my wife and my nephew with no cell signal. My mind raced with a hundred different scenarios, none of which were good. I didn’t have a gun. Never imagined I would need one. It was near 1am now. We were completely vulnerable.

The truck idled in a low growl, menacing and aggrieved. It occurred to me that it was a Friday night (now Saturday morning), and they had been out partying. They were drunk at a minimum, but who knows what else they’d been up to. Meth is rampant in these Appalachian backwaters. They had guns, no doubt. No way they didn’t have guns. What were they doing? Planning? Were they still just fucking with us or had their whiskey-addled brains gone to a darker place? It seemed entirely possible that they could walk down into the campsite and… God knows what.

After a few minutes the truck pulled forward across the gravel parking lot and stopped adjacent to us at the edge of the campsite, only thirty feet away now. One of the two rednecks got out of the passenger side and walked to the bed of the truck. He seemed agitated. I could make out enough of him in the waxing moonlight to determine that he looked straight out of central casting. He was wiry and bedraggled with long, stringy hair and a cutoff t-shirt. There were faint aromas of pine and burnt motor oil and spilt beer on ancient upholstery.

He reached for something in the bed of the truck and my heart pounded so hard I was sure they could hear it. I could hear muffled conversation but couldn’t make anything out. If they walked down into the campsite, I would have to get out of the tent. I would need to address them. Try my diplomatic skills. Attempt to diffuse the situation. But I knew that if they walked down there, things would turn ugly quickly.

I prayed they wouldn’t, and I cursed myself for choosing this campsite, only a few tenths of a mile from the highway and easily accessible. What had begun as such a good day – an excellent day on the trail and at camp had turned into a nightmare. I felt at that moment like we were on the verge of something violent and terrible. Perhaps death. Or worse. It felt real and close and almost scripted, as if there were no other way for it to end.

To my immense relief, the redneck got back in the truck after what seemed an eternity. They spun more donuts, the monstrous engine roaring, enraged. And then, just as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. We heard them tear down the gravel access road and turn onto the highway a half-mile down the mountain, the roar of the engine growing more distant as they lumbered into the dark night.

We’d received a reprieve, but we knew there would be no return to sleep. What if they came back? What if they were going to get more buddies? We were completely vulnerable at our camp. There was only one thing to do. I called out to Chase to grab his shoes and headlamp. We were going back to the trail and we wouldn’t bother with packing. It was more urgent than that. We needed to find a safe place now.

 

We accessed the trail at the northwest corner of the Laurel Valley parking lot, climbing a couple dozen steps away from the lot and onto the trail proper. We sat there at the top of the steps for a few minutes, listening and trying to comprehend what had just happened. The surge in adrenaline left my legs rubbery. My lungs burned. I struggled to control my breathing.

We whispered to each other and this was reassuring. Just being back among the trees and away from view felt safe. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the trail paralleled the jeep road for quite a way, perhaps a mile back west, and if they did come back, we would be vulnerable in our current position. Having accepted the reality that there would not return to camp until daylight, we began walking back in the direction we had come that day, westward into the deep night.

The trail looked and felt different in the dark. We set our headlamps to tactical red, which cast shaky beams of muted light, illuminating our next few steps but not much beyond. There was an electric sense of urgency as we walked through the corridor of hemlocks and pines. We listened in nervous anticipation of the truck’s return, and sensed that they were not quite done with us.

After about a mile, we came to a spot where the trail intersected with the jeep road again at a sharp bend. We descended steps down to the crossing, cautious, slow, headlamps off, listening for any movement. We crossed the jeep road and quickly climbed back onto the trail, ascending a hundred feet or so westward until we were safely enveloped in the trees again.

We sat one in front of the other on some steps carved into the trail. Chase, in front and below, Melissa in the middle, then me. We could make out the jeep road below us, faint moonlight reflecting off the gravel surface through a thin veil of pine branches. We continued to try 911 intermittently with no success. We were stuck for the night and sat uncomfortably, knowing there would be no sleep. It was just after 2am.

Suddenly we saw headlamps below and to our right, and heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Before we could even comprehend what was happening an SUV was directly below us on the jeep road. We realized with alarm that we were much closer to the road than we’d realized. We sat frozen. The SUV stopped and someone inside began searching the hillside with a spotlight. I hissed to “get down!” We found ourselves in a surreal position, on our stomachs, faces in the dirt in the middle of the trail, another set of hooligans below us.

These weren’t our rednecks from earlier but who were they? Did they know we were here? Had they seen us? The searchlight switched off and the SUV began to pull forward, away from us and down the road. We were up in a flash, shuffling as swiftly as we could along the dark and uneven trail.

We walked another half mile or so until we came to a another set of steps which seemed sufficiently far back from the jeep road. I knew the road was still not far away, but we couldn’t see it any longer, which was marginally comforting. We sat down in the same arrangement as before, front to back. We speculated about what might be happening back at our camp, and what it might look like when we returned at sun-up. We assumed it would be ransacked.

We settled in the best we could, alternately leaning on one another and shifting frequently. The temperature was in the mid 60’s by now. Uncomfortably cool with no jacket. Melissa was the only one who had thought to bring water, but her bottle was less than a quarter full, so we rationed our sips carefully. The subsiding adrenaline left us all parched. We talked in muted whispers about the events of the night. We tried the cell occasionally and still had no success despite being higher on the mountain.

We marked time and tried to nap. We did our best to get through the night, shivering and battling an ironic sense of boredom, considering all the excitement. I realized that I had left my hiking pole at the other set of steps when we had to scramble away. We sat there sat in the deep night in the middle of the Foothills Trail, completely unafraid of bears or snakes. Wild animals were not our concern. Only people.

Gradually the hours slipped by and around 6am a faint, early light began to filter through the trees. We cautiously made our way back toward camp, and despite lingering trepidation, it was invigorating and restorative to be up and moving again. We made good time, gaining confidence in proportion to the strengthening light as we walked. We were eager to see what condition our camp might be in, to pack and be on our way. We were simultaneously exhausted and energized.

At the steps leading down to the parking lot I motioned for Melissa and Chase to stop, and I made my way down slowly, the parking lot and campsite revealing themselves by degree with each step. It was perfectly still. The gravel under my feet and early-morning birdsong the only sounds. When camp came fully into view, I motioned for them to come on down.

Walking across the parking lot, the crazed tire tracks were obvious in deep figure-eight scars across the surface dirt and gravel. It was evidence that last night was real, not some shared horror dream. We crossed the parking lot to the campsite, and everything was intact. We were relieved and quickly set about breaking down tents and filling packs. Within twenty minutes we were loaded and walking.

We decided to walk down to the highway where we could pump water from Estatoe Creek under the Highway 178 overpass. We ate breakfast here too, just off the road at the edge of a private drive. Grey clouds hung low, like soiled gauze. The June humidity quickly replaced the morning cool. Cars flew by, drivers oblivious to us on the highway. Before long we were on the move again, and picked up the trail east of the highway.

We hiked a full 14-miles to the car at Table Rock State Park despite plans for one more night of camping along the trail. We’d seen two black bears on the hike that day, which was thrilling, but also solidified our resolve to push on. After the drama of the previous night, camping in an area with multiple bear sightings was not appealing. We were eager to get to the car, to a hotel in Greenville. To have a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. We were emotionally and physically spent.

We arrived at Table Rock around 5pm and found the car where we had left it a week before. After seven days and 77 miles spent walking along the entirety of the Foothills Trail, I learned that in our part of the world, where there are no Grizzlies, bears are nothing to be overly concerned about. People are a different story.

I learned some time later that Chase had recurring nightmares about that night. In it, the rednecks did walk down into the camp, and killed Melissa and me, after which they loaded him hogtied into the God-forsaken pickup truck. It would always end there, the rest too horrible even for nightmares.

Sometimes, randomly during a work call or a while reading, my thoughts will wander back to that night, to certain moments where we seemed sure to encounter violence. My pulse quickens, my palms sweat, my jaw tightens, and the metallic taste of fear and adrenaline come rushing back.

It happens less frequently now, as the years have gone by. But when it does, the intensity is always the same. I think about the vagaries of chance, of the muddled erratic decisions of hostile strangers, of how it could have turned out, and if there is some alternate universe where things did go differently.

And for some part of me, I know it will always be midnight on the mountain.

3 thoughts on “Midnight on the Mountain

  1. Well written and a situation well responded to. Your decision to act and get away from camp seems to have been wise. Scary for sure though.

  2. I was on the verge of tears during this entire story although I had already heard it before from your mom. So very frightening – especially since Zach and I were going camping the very next day after hearing this story! I watched the tent door for a good hour that first night! So glad y’all are safe and I look forward to hearing other “happy” stories from your hike!

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